When we saw in the New Year on the 31st of December 2019, I bet no one expected what would unfold in the next 6 months. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world in a myriad of different, striking ways. You won’t need to be told this – everyone is feeling it, deeply and personally. Lives are being lost, many people have lost their jobs and life doesn’t look like it will ever be back to a pre-COVID-19 normal again for a while, if ever.
These effects are being felt at home in our families and in our work teams. Some companies have had to radically rethink how they do things and take the heart-breaking decision to make significant redundancies. Some companies, for example, those that manufacture masks, will be thriving but even they will be under stress to meet the sudden demands that have been placed upon them.
The pandemic has meant that teams have experienced massive, rapid upheaval and change. Their composition has changed significantly, often shrinking in size, and they have had to adapt and embrace completely different practices. Worry and anxiety are high, and stress levels have increased. Many people are experiencing the new reality of working from home in lockdown, remote from teammates, which brings a whole new suite of challenges.
Most people reading this will be nodding their heads as this thought resonates. Never has there been such an instant, global change to the way we work in teams. Currently, everyone is fighting fires. The situation has developed and is developing so rapidly that there is little long or even medium-term planning that can be done. Every company affected is basically trying to survive. Everyone is focused on an operational level of doing the work they do, and keeping the company going and people employed. As much as we know this is not over, we have weathered the initial, unexpected storm and there is now an increasing desire to get on with things.
When I coach teams, I look at the team as an entity in its own right. I see a team as an organism, that has its own energy and life, and this is what I coach. I don’t individually coach the team members – I coach that team entity. Because I work like this, I am constantly seeing teams in this way and as I look at teams in their current state, I can’t but help think of a boxer in the ring. He is several rounds into the bout and has taken a beating. He’s fought hard, and although he’s not ready to throw in the towel, he’s feeling bloodied, rattled, exhausted, and needs help.
Boxing matches are fought in several rounds, with breaks in between. When the bell rings, the boxer returns to his corner for a break. In this short period of time between rounds, he works with his trainer and medical team to assess, fix, rest, and refocus. He consciously takes time out of his actual work to decide what to do next before the bell rings and he returns to the ring for the next round.
Think of your team as a boxer. You have been fighting hard in the past six months, trying to deal with the opponent of COVID-19, plus all your usual challenges that were present before the pandemic struck. Ask yourself this question: Is your team, your boxer, ever taking a break between rounds? Do you ever stop to look at your team’s ‘body’ and consciously assess, refocus, and fix any issues that you see? Most people reading this will say no. And I get it. We’re far too busy trying to fight in the ring to have time out on a stool in the corner. This is a strong instinct. Keep fighting. But at what cost? Won’t your boxer burn out, if he doesn’t take even a few moments to sit on the stool and breathe? What is the future opportunity cost of not spending time focusing a little bit of time and effort on your team now?
There is some good news. Although the pandemic is by no means over, we are getting through it. Human beings are incredibly resilient and surprise themselves sometimes with the deep reserves of energy they can draw upon when push comes to shove. There is also the phenomenon that even the strangest circumstances become normal. In war movies, you see the new soldier joining his unit on the frontline diving for cover as a shell burst nearby, whilst the grizzled veteran continues to unflinchingly stir his coffee.
As teams come through the initial lung-busting rounds, they are beginning to look to the future. Long term plans can’t be made, but we can start to move forward. And as we do, this is the perfect time to take a moment on the stool between rounds. Time to take a few breaths, and ask yourselves questions like ‘how is everyone doing? Are you OK? What do you need?’
Here are five things you can do to help your team right now.
SIT ON THE STOOL
By this I mean to take as much time as you can away from the fight of doing the work you do, to spend recovering. Use this time to focus on your team. It can be five minutes, an hour, a day. Face to face, or on video conference. It doesn’t matter. Just take the time.
BE CONSCIOUS AND RAISE AWARENESS OF WHAT’S HAPPENING
As your team sits on this metaphorical stool, take time to discuss what’s going on for people and the team, and not discussing the nuts and bolts of the work you do together. It’s amazing what realizations you can come to just by taking the time to be present and consciously listening to what’s going on. There’s a tremendous power to hearing yourself talk out loud what you are thinking with your peers and listening to what they are saying.
TAKE REGULAR BREAKS BETWEEN ROUNDS
Boxing matches consist of twelve, 3-minute rounds, so a total of 36 minutes. But no boxer can box for 36 minutes straight. Every three minutes, they have a break of one minute. Create a habit within your team of taking regular intervals and sessions to only talk about the health of your team. Do it as frequently and for as long as what works for you. Even just a few minutes will help. But this time is so valuable to your team’s energy and health.
CREATE A PLAN OF ACTION
Having a conscious focus on your team’s health and what’s going on is half the battle. It is also important for you to ask, ‘what’s next?’ and create a plan of action. Any coach will tell you that this concept we call forwarding the action is central to the whole point of coaching and necessary for you to make any changes you need to help you out. Think of the boxer on the stool. The trainer and boxer have a check-in discussion, the cutman fixes up any cuts on the boxer’s face, and then the trainer and boxer agree what he needs to do in the next round. You need to have this same mentality in your team check-ins.
Finally, and forgive the shameless plug, but this is what I do! Often, you are so closely involved in the team, it is necessary to get an impartial expert in to help you. As a team coach, I help teams manage this process and guide them so they can find the right answers that will help them prepare their own action plan ready for the next round. If you think you would value this, please get in touch. I am here to help.